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Red Shipley, Stained Glass Bluegrass Host, Dies

Red Shipley, for half a century the voice of gospel bluegrass in the music's home region, died last night of cancer in Charlottesville. Shipley's legendary Stained Glass Bluegrass program on WAMU in Washington ran from 1982 until last month, when the station removed all of its bluegrass programming.

For half a century, Shipley was a staple on the radio dial and in the hearts of bluegrass fans throughout the Mid-Atlantic states. After graduating from Orange County High School in 1956, Shipley began emceeing at WJMA (named for President James Madison, born in Orange), and from 1966 to 1972, he emceed the 6-10 a.m. show on WKCW in Fauquier County, as The Post's Eugene Scheel wrote a few years ago:

Shipley emceed the National Championship Country Music Contest, held each August from 1960 to 1979 on the shores of Lake Whippoorwill, east of Warrenton. "We often emceed, a little money on the side," Reeder explained. The Warrenton-Fauquier Junior Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, renting the two-acre pond and its grounds. The winners of the contest included Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean and Dean's future wife, Donna Meade.

"Radio lost one of its own legends last night," said Caryn Mathes, WAMU's general manager. "I'm deeply saddened by the news of Red's passing, but grateful that he was able to spend 25 years on the air with us at WAMU, and heartened that he was able to continue doing what he loved for so long."

Here's a Bob Levey column from Feb. 17, 1977 about Red Shipley:

Six in the morning, straight up, Jim Fitzgerald starts reciting the news. His wife is asleep on the hallway couch, her coat over her. And Red Shipley, Washington's king of country music? He's deep into his second cup of coffee, and he looks like he's good for two more.

His eyes are like missile silos - deep, dull and hollow. He was so sleepy when he got going this morning that he forgot the jacket to his gray leisure suit. And he's been looking for that new Mel Tillis record for five minutes; damned if he can find it.

"When you get up at 4:30 in the morning," says Red Shipley, who has been doing it most of his life, "you're a little out of the mainstream of society." Or, more frequently, just plain out of it.

But you know what they say about shows having to go on. The clock in the Alexandria studios of WPIK and WXRA-FM has crept up to 6:04:30. Fitz is winding up the sports scores. One last belt of coffee, and Red Shipley is in the studio in time to hear Fitz's magic handoff: "And now, the best in country continues with Reeeeeeed Shipley!"

In the next three hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds, Red Shipley will play 47 songs, give away prizes o two commuters, make three hurried trips to the men's room, deal with five telephoned song requests, smoke 18 cigarettes and find 30 different ways to say it'll be fair and warmer.

After 16 1/2 years as the Washington area's most familiar 6:10 a.m. country music disc jockey, Shipley's baritone is still believable when it says, "Rise, shine, feelin' fine." Besides, says Shipley, "It beats the hell out of working for a living."

By his definition, Robert Grant Shipley never has. He is one of those people who knew what he wanted to do when he was 10, started doing it when he was 16 and is still merrily doing it at 39.

"Every once in a while, I see myself sitting next to Barbara Walters," Shipley said. "But, hey, I could have been a farmer, too."

He once was one. As a boy, Shipley "milked five cows by hand every morning" on the family spread in Orange, Va. But by the time he was through high school, he had broken in as a country jock on the local 250-watt AM station. "Everybody in town knew me," Shipley says.

From Orange, Shipley moved on to Manassas, Warrenton and, nearly five years ago, Alexandria. He has been the morning man at each stop. When the arrived at WPIK-WXRA, "we were the 36th most popular station in the Washington market, and there were 33 stations." Now, thanks at least partly to Shipley, the two stations are a solid sixth.

Shipley's studio has country written all over it, at least if you buy the cliches.

On the rear wall hang the following: Photos of four young country lovelies, a National Rifle Association poster, another of pro football quarterback Terry Bradshaw and a calendar showing a fisherman landing a big one. On the desk lamp hang two miniature American flags.

For Shipley, this isn't sham. He is country and a half, and proud of it, brother. He still lives there (Warrenton), and he admits he even listens to country music at home.

If you don't, or haven't lately, you've missed some changes.

Country has long ago outdistanced its standby subjects: heartbreak, truck driving and Jesus. It now deals in such topics as sex, race, alcoholism and politics, usually without fumbling.

Lyrics continue to be appallingly illiterate at times. "Yesterday has ran into tomorrow," insists one song. "Can't get no help from nobody," laments another.

But the music itself has progressed surprisingly far. In the old days, it weren't country if it didn't have no geetar. Now, violins, trombones and other creatures from other planets have they threaten to stay.

Shipley believes the changes have attracted many who formerly listened to nothing but rock.

"As they get a little older, most rock doesn't have much relationship to their lives," Shipley said. "They just don't relate to getting stoned any more."

With that, Shipley breaks off the discussion for at least the dozenth time. The little white light on his console is blinking. Tha means the phone is "ringing." Almost certainly a fan who wants to hear a certain song.

It goes like this, at machine-gun pace:

"Hello, there, darlin' . . . feelin' good . . . If I was feelin' any better I couldn't stand it, darlin' . . . Yeah, oh, yeah, I'm glad to do it . . . fine, fine . . . sure do . . . Yes, Ma'am . . . Yes, indeed . . . OK . . . I'll be looking for it . . . OK, dear."

Throughout the 20 seconds this takes, Shipley has one eye on the record that is playing. He is preparing the next with his non-phone hand. His other eye is on a rack of tape cassettes - his ads.

Suddenly, desperation crosses Shipley's face. The record is ending.

"Gotta run, dear," he barks. Down goes the phone. Up go three switches. "Awwwwright, that was 'Angel With a Broken Wing,'" says Red Shipley, right in timpo. If you were trundling along the Beltway, it would have sounded smooth as silk.

Shipley has only two trademarks, besides his still-red hair. His last words before each song starts are "Hit it, darlin'." And his last words of each broadcast are "thanks to you, and ah-toodle-dee-doo."

"They listen for the music," Shipley explains. "They don't need my dulcet tones, particularly."

Such an approach is appreciated. "He's the best to work with," says Jim Fitzgerald, the morning news and traffic man. "He's forgotten more about country and bluegrass than most people will ever know."

But the hours, ooooo, the hours.

"I don't have a regular time when I go to sleep," Shipley admits. Five hours of sack a night is often more than average, he says. And Shipley's day is far from over after ah-toodle-dee-doo. He is operations manager for WPIK-WXRA as well.

Still, "I hope this is the last job I ever have," said Shipley, as he "cued" the last record of another show. "I'm just happy with the 'Red' and the 'Hit it, darlin'."

By Marc Fisher |  October 7, 2007; 9:19 AM ET
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Comments

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I've been listening to Red's Stained Glass Bluegrass show for 13 years, and heard his last broadcast on September 16th. The 1977 article is interesting, but it would have been nice if you had printed something about him that is more recent! Especially since his broadcasting career only just ended a few weeks ago. He has been a beloved, bluegrass gospel radio show host for the past 25 years. He will be mourned by many listeners and bluegrass musicians worldwide. We love you Red!

Posted by: Bluegrass gospel fan | October 7, 2007 6:44 PM

I haven't listened to Red Shipley or Stained Glass Bluegrass for probably the last six months to a year, not because of a change of taste, but because of other activities that precluded it. And almost every Sunday I was conscious I missed the show. A radio station (the former Washington Post Radio, for example) could do worse than simply re-running the archive shows of Stained Glass Bluegrass and the Eddie Stubs Show. There once was a major audience in DC for bluegrass and traditional country music, and there probably still is, along with classicial, even if it's on a smaller scale. Would it hurt to have a market nice? I don't believe it would. Red Shipley, and others now no longer with WAMU fill a musical and radio need for some people; it's a shame that the sounds and the features are no longer there. More years ago than I care to remember, an old friend told me about Red Shipley, how years before that how he had worked on radio on a distant station, and virtually stole the Red Shipley Show; not the words or the quotes, or the music order, but the idea of playing things that others wouldn't necessarily have heard if it weren't for Red. He'll be missed in the future; he's missed now. Dungarees@gmail.com

Posted by: Dungarees | October 7, 2007 7:10 PM

Red Shipley brought our family joy, every Sunday morning. His baritone seemed to somehow pronounce that there were enough good people out there that all would be right with the world. We hated that WAMU decided to push his show off the air, and won't listen to their re-run programming they're now using to fill the time. Red - we woke up to you since we moved to DC. Thanks. We'll miss you.

Posted by: Love you Red | October 7, 2007 8:44 PM

I moved to the D.C. area in 1972 and listened to Red Shipley on WPIK every morning while driving to work.

I remember his signature opening of "Rise, shine, feelin' fine" and "Hit it, darlin'" to this day.

Posted by: Reston | October 8, 2007 9:41 AM

We listened to Stained Glass Bluegrass every Sunday as we drove to Mass. Red will be missed.

Posted by: An Dliodoir | October 8, 2007 9:49 AM

Great blog item except for the patronizing Bob Levey drivel.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 8, 2007 11:07 AM

Sometimes doing what you love keeps you alive longer than you would live doing just "a job." Red had that until WAMU pulled the plug, and just like that, he's gone, both from the airwaves and life itself.
It's a bit deceptive of WAMU to say "Red retired from Stained Glass Bluegrass just three weeks ago." Truth be told, the show was retired by WAMU.

Posted by: takomaparktom | October 8, 2007 1:12 PM

I worked with Red at WPRW, Manassas, in 1961. I was just getting started; never realized Red was my same age; he always seemed older. He definitely was more experienced. His countrified approach somewhat belied his intelligence. He was the smartest and best-spoken person you could ever meet. And the nicest.

Posted by: Bill Prettyman | October 9, 2007 8:47 AM

The International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY sends out its condolences to Red Shipley's fans, family and friends. he is a true broadcast legend in the world of bluegrass music and will be missed by all.

Posted by: Mike Lawing | October 9, 2007 1:47 PM

My wife and I listned to Red every Sunday morning on WAMU radio .
He somehow got our day off on the right foot. It is a real shame that WAMU has decided to cut off their bluegrass music programming. I for one will no longer listen to the station in it's present format

Posted by: tom hill | October 9, 2007 5:49 PM

Our thoughts and prayers are with Red's family. We honor and respect Red as a celebrated broadcaster in the bluegrass world.

We were surprised to learn from some folks in our audience that Red listened at times to our 100% 24/7 Bluegrass station here in Spotsylvania, WWED 89.5, which also streams on the web at www.BluegrassFm.org.

We are thankful that Red left a legacy of a friendly and audience-centered approach for local broadcasters to follow and attempt to emulate.

Pete Stover
General Manager
Bluegrass FM
Spotsylvania, VA

Posted by: Pete Stover | October 10, 2007 8:23 AM

The Angels are singing tonight because our darling's gone transplanted to bloom in the Master's bouquet!

RIP "Red" you truly made a difference.

Posted by: Woodman | October 11, 2007 8:10 AM

I just read of Red Shipley's passing! I loved his Stained Glass Bluegrass show which I heard so often on Sunday when driving to or from Church. It was traumatic to me to listen to his last show on NPR. I didn't expect his retiring, and NPR has shocked me again with the removal of traditional gospel music from it's Sunday's airwaves. I am sure we will meet Red and many other Gospel Bluegrass people in Heaven. Please, Lord have mercy on us.

Posted by: Margaret Young | October 12, 2007 3:09 PM

Red sold advertising to our family business when he was on the air at WPIK in the late fifties. He was always remembered as a straight-dealer and nice guy. He will be missed on the radio waves and in life.

Posted by: blgrsguy | October 13, 2007 6:28 AM

Having left the DC area over 2 years ago I missed my regular Sunday morning fix of Stained Glass Bluegrass. I was saddened to hear of Red Shipley's passing. And to show his national stature as a radio personality I learned of his death via a California-based music blog.

I'm also saddened by WAMU's decision to drop it's bluegrass programming. I'm sure the demographics weren't what they were looking for in listeners but you'd think that some part of a broadcasting week could be set aside for lovers of this music. It's not like there are a lot of other choices.

RIP, Red.

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